Sharad Mathur

Curious Case of AAP’s Resurgence

Sharad Mathur

AAP_Cover

In the wee hours of February 10, 2015, Delhi woke up to the beats of paanch saal Kejriwal (translates to Kejriwal for five years). A catchy number, it was composed by popular musician and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) member Vishal Dadlani. AAP had proved all its critics wrong and secured 67 out of the total 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly. This was the first time in the history of India where a political party had won more than 95 per cent of the seats in a state assembly that has representation from more than 60 constituencies. Compared to its vote share in 2013 assembly elections, AAP had doubled its vote share in 28 constituencies and tripled it in nine constituencies. Decimation of the 140-year-old Indian National Congress (INC) in Delhi was completed, and the aura of invincibility around Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was violated with disdain.

The best of psephologists did not see it coming. Most of the opinion polls, as late as February 1, were counting on BJP to emerge as the single largest party in the house. AAP’s own opinion survey, in its projection of the best case scenario, gave AAP 14 per cent less seats than the number of seats it ended up winning. Even the exit polls, which were conducted on the day of polling, completely missed the magnitude of the AAP’s victory; most accurate of the exit polls, conducted by Today’s Chanakya, missed AAP’s final tally by over 27 per cent. Why did everyone miss the landslide of a victory AAP registered?

The simplest explanation – no one expected AAP to bounce back so strongly after the brutal rout it faced in the 2014 general elections.

The Downfall

In the Delhi assembly elections of 2013, not many expected AAP to have such a healthy debut. It ended up with 28 seats in the Delhi assembly just after BJP, which emerged the single largest party with 31 seats. Many of its supporters were sceptical when AAP took outside support from INC to form the government, which then gave way to anger when Arvind Kejriwal abdicated his post just 48 days after swearing in as the Delhi Chief Minister. This decision to abdicate power was explained as an idealistic one by AAP, but allegations of them abandoning Delhi for national ambition possibly found more resonance with people. Naturally, results for AAP in the general elections in 2014 were horrid. With an exception of Punjab, AAP could not win a single seat. Even in Delhi, incubator of its politics, AAP lost all the seven seats. It had fielded 434 candidates and 90 per cent lost their deposits. After the general election results were declared on May 16, 2014, Kejriwal and AAP became the butt of a galaxy of jokes. People in Arvind Kejriwal’s constituency were shutting doors on his face and netizens were calling him Farziwal (an insulting alteration of his name to insinuate that he is a sham), and bhagoda (deserter). Roadside discussions, opinion pieces in the newspapers, and prime time debates were all asking the same question – can AAP ever recover from this?

The Resurgence

It not only recovered, but emerged stronger than ever and ‘the question’ has moved on from ‘can they’ to ‘how did they’.

Massive Support for AAP.

Massive Support for AAP.

Now, BJP has done many things to lose this election, but ascribing a mandate as strong as AAP’s to BJP’s missteps over AAP’s strategies would be naive and unfair. To my mind, derailment of a leader or an institution is completed in three phases – falling out with the ideology, failure to deliver results expected, and ultimately alienating the people who have placed their trust in the leader. AAP, under Arvind Kejriwal’s leadership, had almost plunged till the third stage of its derailment but made a remarkable comeback. AAP’s resurgence is an example for political groups – like the Five Star Movement MS5) in Italy,  Ordinary People and Independent Personalities in Slovakia, Left Party in France, Bulgaria Without Censorship in Bulgaria, and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany – which gained prominence with a promise of ‘new type of politics’ only to lose steam midway. AAP’s revival chiefly rested on the pillars of humility, people’s feedback, timely course correction, a positive campaign, and strengthening the organisation.

Humility

Arrogance starts with a seemingly harmless expectation to be admired, then blinds the individual to any feedback or truth-telling, and finally locks him in a vicious cycle of failure by making him reinterpret it and blame everything but his own actions. This was evident in Arvind Kejriwal’s barb at the media after the controversy around his Mumbai trip during the campaign trail for 2014 general elections: “Whole media is sold this time, it is a big conspiracy, it is a huge political controversy. If our government comes to power then we will set up an inquiry into this. And along with the media people, all will be sent to jail.” But the general election results worked as a wake-up call. AAP soon realised that the people of Delhi felt cheated by Kejriwal’s resignation. And the latter, showing humility like never before admitted that he had committed a mistake, and conceded that he should have continued despite his failure to make Jan Lokpal (Citizen’s Ombudsman Bill) a law. With the apology, he set AAP on track to win back the trust of its voters; he said, “AAP is still an honest party. We will go to the people and seek forgiveness for quitting the government.”

Feedback and Course Correction

AAP leaders and volunteers went back to its voters in Delhi and sought not only their forgiveness, but also their feedback. They made a list of all the negative perceptions about AAP and went about addressing each one of them with an open mind.

People wanted him to remain the CM of Delhi, and AAP responded to it with the ‘paanch saal Kejriwal’ (Kejriwal for five years) campaign. To boost the message that AAP is in Delhi to stay, it was decided that AAP would not participate in any election outside Delhi. It did not contest the assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, and focused solely on Delhi. In an interview, party’s chief strategist Ashish Talwar said, “We started preparing in June itself. We were also first off the block in announcing candidates. Unlike in BJP, there was no confusion in AAP. Right from the word go, we wanted ‘paanch saal Kejriwal’. There was a singularity of purpose.”

Another big criticism of AAP came for its dharna politics (loosely translates to politics of dissent) and inability to create a perception of able governance during its 48 days of governance. To counter this, AAP came up with Delhi Dialogues, chaired by Arvind Kejriwal, an initiative which encouraged people’s collaboration in policy making and preparing the blueprint for making Delhi a world class city. It was a masterstroke to not go to the people with a manifesto created in the party headquarters like every other party. AAP’s volunteers, through this platform, talked to people across the demographic band in Delhi, and its manifesto in turn reflected people’s needs and aspirations. The AAP manifesto laid down a 70-point-action-plan to make ‘the Capital a city that takes pride in itself’. In fact, to show that they meant business, elected AAP MLAs sorted out some of the issues identified during Delhi Dialogues by putting their MLA funds to use.

Positive Campaign

Unlike the 2014 general elections, AAP kept its campaign completely positive and focused on development alone. Not once did Arvind Kejriwal launch a personal attack on Narendra Modi in his campaign trail. Instead, he talked about eradication of corruption through Jan Lokpal and Swaraj Bills, reducing electricity bills by half, giving Delhi water free of cost, installing 15 lakh cameras and deployment of homeguards for women safety, opening 500 new schools and 20 new colleges, and setting up 30,000 new beds in city hospitals. Countering the criticism of their being closeted communist, the AAP manifesto read ‘AAP will create eight lakh new jobs in the next five years. AAP will facilitate innovative and private start up accelerators to provide support to entrepreneurs. We will create an ecosystem that enables private industry to create more jobs.’

Strengthening the Organisation

During election campaigns, we are used to seeing candidates loaded with garlands in an open jeep surrounded by a swarm of semi-rouge volunteers riding on fancy bikes without helmets. AAP’s volunteers, for the most part, are in stark contrast with this. They are clean, ordinary people, driven by conviction in the ‘new type of politics’ that AAP promises. They brought door-to-door campaign back in vogue, all the while singing ‘mera rang de basanti chola’ (a popular Hindi song from 1965 film Shaheed that evoked memories of Indian revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev).

This volunteer base was inspired, but not organised like that of other cadre based parties. AAP continued the process of strengthening the organisation to the booth level in a systematic way. AAP units in each constituency were asked to ensure at least one polling center in-charge and two booth in-charges for every polling center were present.  Arvind Kejriwal personally felicitated party volunteers in every constituency that completed this structure. More than ten frontal organisations, including AAP’s youth wing, student’s wing, women’s wing, ST cell, Grameen Morcha, and trader’s cell were also set up to increase the party’s base. As a result, in the Delhi assembly elections of 2015, AAP had 3,000 people managing around 40,000 volunteers at 12,000 booths. This expansion from just 15,000 volunteers who were virtually unmanaged in the 2013 assembly elections strengthened the organisation and the results are there for everyone to see.

Road Ahead

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